Art History: What is Contemporary Art?

What is Contemporary Art Definition

To many people, coming up with a contemporary art definition can be a troublesome task. While its title is simplistic and straightforward, its modern-day meaning is not as clear-cut. Fortunately, understanding what constitutes as “contemporary” is entirely possible once one traces the concept's history and explores its underlying themes.

What is contemporary art?

In its most basic sense, the term contemporary art refers to art—namely, painting, sculpture, photography, installation, performance, and video art—produced today. Though seemingly simple, the details surrounding this definition are often a bit fuzzy, as different individuals' interpretations of “today” may widely and wildly vary. Therefore, the exact starting point of the genre is still debated; however, many art historians consider the late 1960s (the end of modern art, or modernism) to be an adequate estimate.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Jeff Koons

Photo: Installation Shot: Jeff Koons, ‘Now' © Victor Mara Ltd

History: Major Movements and Artists

Given its “art of today” definition, you may be surprised to hear that contemporary art actually has a relatively long history. To trace its evolution, let's take a look at the movements and major artists that compose its history.

Pop Art

Intended as a reaction to preceding modern art movements, contemporary art is thought to have begun on the heels of Pop Art. Pop Art was pioneered by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and was defined by an interest in portraying mass culture. It lasted roughly from the 1950s through the 1970s. And thanks to artists like Jeff Koons, it was reborn as Neo-Pop Art in the 1980s.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Andy Warhol Campbell's Soup
What is Contemporary Art Definition Andy Warhol Campbell's Soup

Andy Warhol, ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ (1962)
Photo: MoMA
© 2017 Andy Warhol Foundation / ARS, NY / TM Licensed by Campbell's Soup Co.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Pop Art

Roy Lichtenstein, ‘In The Car’ (1963)
Photo: National Galleries Scotland
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

What is Contemporary Art Definition Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, ‘Balloon Dog’ (1994-2000)
Photo: Christie’s
© Jeff Koons

Photorealism

Much like artists working in the Pop Art style sought to artistically reproduce objects, those involved with Photorealism aimed to create hyperrealistic drawings and paintings. Photorealists often worked from photographs, which enabled them to accurately reproduce portraits, landscapes, and other iconography. Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter often worked in this style.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Chuck Close

Chuck Close, ‘Big Self-Portrait’ (1967-1968)
Photo: Walker Art Center
© Chuck Close, Courtesy of Walker Art Center

What is Contemporary Art Definition Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, ‘Betty’ (1988)
Photo: Saint Louis Art Museum
© Gerhard Richter, 2013

Conceptualism

In turn, Pop Art also art helped shape Conceptualism, which fought against the idea of art as a commodity. Though this experimental movement is rooted in art of the early 21st century, it emerged as a formal movement in the 1960s and remains a major contemporary art movement today. In conceptual art, the idea behind a work of art takes precedence. Major conceptual artists include Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei, and Jenny Holzer.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst, ‘Abalone Acetone Powder’ (1991)
Photo: Damien Hirst
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Ai Wei Wei

Ai Wei Wei, ‘COCA COLA VASE’ (2011)
Photo: Sotheby’s

What is Contemporary Art Definition Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer, ‘Projections (Siena)’ (2009)
Photo: Jenny Holzer

Minimalism

Like Conceptualism, Minimalism materialized in the 1960s and is still prevalent today. According to the Tate, both movements “challenged the existing structures for making, disseminating and viewing art.” What sets Minimalism apart, however, is that its simple, abstract aesthetic invites viewers to respond to what they see—not what they think a given work of art represents. Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Dan Flavin are some key Minimalist artists.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Donald Judd

Donald Judd, ‘Untitled’ (1980)
Photo: Tate
© Donald Judd Foundation/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2017

What is Contemporary Art Definition Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt, ‘Wall Drawings’ (2006)
Photo: Lisson Gallery

What is Contemporary Art Definition Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin, ‘Untitled (to Don Judd, colorist)’ 1–5 (1987)
Photo: Emma Hogan Photography

Performance Art

Another movement with Conceptualist roots is performance art. Beginning in the 1960s and retaining its popularity today, performance art is a drama-inspired approach to art. While the art form is performed by artists (as the name suggests), it is not solely intended as entertainment. Instead, its goal is to convey a message or idea. Predominant performance artists include Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono, and Joseph Beuys.

Marina Abramović, ‘The Artist is Present’ (2010)

Yoko Ono, ‘Cut Piece,’ (1965)

Joseph Beuys, ‘Healing the Western Mind Part I’ (1974)

Installation Art

Like performance pieces, installation art is an immersive medium of art. Installations are three-dimensional constructions that transform their surroundings and alter viewers' perceptions of space. Often, they're site-specific and large-scale. Well-known installation artists include Yayoi Kusama and Dale Chihuly.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, Exhibition View of ‘Gleaming Lights of the Souls’ (2008)
Photo: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

What is Contemporary Art Definition Chihuly

Dale Chihuly, Exhibition Views of ‘Chihuly at the de Young’ (2008)
Photo: Diane Farris Gallery

Earth Art

A unique spin on installation art, Earth Art (or Land Art) is a movement in which artists transform natural landscapes into site-specific works of art. Robert Smithson, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Andy Goldsworthy are celebrated for their avant-garde earthworks.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson, ‘Sprial Jetty’ (1970)
Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni

What is Contemporary Art Definition Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, ‘Surrounded Islands’ (1980-1983)
Photo: Wolfgang Volz

What is Contemporary Art Definition Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy, ‘Touching North, North Pole’ (1989)
Photo: Julian Calder

Street Art

As one of the most recent contemporary art movements, street art is a genre that gained prominence with the rise of graffiti in the 1980s. Often rooted in social activism, street art includes murals, installations, stenciled images, and stickers erected in public spaces. Key street artists include figures from the 1980s, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as practicing artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Untitled (Fallen Angel)’ (1981)
Photo: Basquiat

What is Contemporary Art Definition Keith Haring

Keith Haring Stedlijk Ceiling Mural (1986)
Photo: Keith Haring
© Keith Haring Foundation

What is Contemporary Art Definition Banksy

Banksy, ‘Balloon Girl’ (2002)
Photo: Banksy

What is Contemporary Art Definition Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey, ‘Hope’ (2008)
Photo: Jay L. Clendenin

What's Next for Contemporary Art?

While some of the artists we've looked at are either no longer alive or unable to practice, many contemporary greats, including (but not limited to) Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei, Marina Abramović, Yayoi Kusama, and Jeff Koons, continue to create avant-garde works of painting, sculpture, installation, and performance art.

In addition to these famous figures, many up-and-coming contemporary artists are stunning the world with their original approach to art. In addition to putting their own twists on conventional forms like painting, sculpture, and installation, they've also popularized unexpected forms of art, like embroidery, origami, and tattoos.

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